Truths and Lies About the Value of an NFL Offensive Lineman
Offensive linemen are often an unheralded group.
There are popular, yet erroneous ways of thinking when it comes to offensive linemen in regards to team building. After spending countless hours on this subject, pulling from firsthand experience and research, I hope to reopen the book on the proper methodology and dispel some myths about the true value of the big boys up front.
Removed from praise and glory, few offensive linemen in the league are household names. Yet out of the ashes of this positional anonymity emerges an attitude and ideology of increased popularity amongst professionals and analysts.
All those in the know have assimilated to similar posturing, which is embodied in this sentence: “You build a team starting from the inside and work your way out.”
It's as if this strategy has become an immutable fact to which all experts must adhere.
Well, I don't buy it.
Don't get me wrong; there's obvious importance to offensive line play, but the real value comes as an entire unit rather than an individual.
Sure, such a theory contradicts long-held tradition, so keeping this in mind, I'll start with a unique system used to rank every offensive line based on their performance last year. In addition, I used a point system to rank each offensive lineman.
How the offensive line rankings were determined:
Team and player offensive line rankings were based on an accumulative point system combining several key factors detailed below.
- Sacks allowed
- QB hits allowed
- Total rush yards
- Average yards per carry
- Negative play to big play ratio (total rushing plays for a loss of yards vs. total rushing plays of 10-plus yards)
- NFL.com's power percentage average. (Percentage of rushes on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go that achieved a first down or TD. Also includes rushes on 1st-and-goal and 2nd-and-goal from the opponent's 2-yard line or closer.)
- Individual player rankings combining a point system based on the rankings of several sources. Most notable of those is ProFootballFocus, as they grade every single play of every player for an entire season. In addition, players were given points based on how highly they were ranked on Bleacher Report's ranking of the top 1000 players in the NFL. Lastly, I included the professional opinion of three NFL offensive line coaches from an article by Pat Kirwan of NFL.com.
These rankings became the foundation from which much of the information and analysis in this article is derived.
Elite offensive linemen are rarely found in the later rounds of the draft: False
Popular thinking has shown drafting offensive linemen as early as possible is crucial due to the rarity of talent at the position, which requires so much in terms of size, strength and quickness.
The argument behind this perspective is similar to that of centers in basketball. Basically, their rare body frames are coveted at a premium.
The problem with this comparison is that the job requirements and skill sets required of men playing these positions are nowhere near the same, nor is the value of each position the same.
As this chart shows, I have broken down how many players from each round made it in the top 50:
|Number of Players by Round in the Top 50|
A key thing to consider is that first-round picks are given an unfair advantage to succeed in this league and are often forced into starting roles regardless of how good they actually prove to be, largely due to the expectations of the franchise that draft them.
Yet despite this, the second-largest contribution to the top 50 comes from rookies who were not even good enough to be drafted. Somehow these men found a way to not only start, but to achieve elite status as well.
Here is a breakdown of the top 10 linemen and the round in which they were drafted:
It is safe to say elite talent at the offensive line position can be found at any stage of the draft. As a result, the trick becomes having a scouting department capable of identifying such players more often than not.
An elite offensive lineman has less value than top players at other positions: True
What position is more important in football
The functional difference between elite and average for offensive linemen is incredibly incremental. If you don't agree, just watch game film. There may be distinguishable characteristics in that player's movements and physiology, but the functional outcome of a particular assignment between prospects is almost always the same.
For this reason, the actual impact an elite offensive lineman can have on a game is most often very limited, and it rarely extends beyond the impact of an average lineman doing an adequate job. That small value change may not justify the big contracts or the high draft statuses unless they are truly unique and exceptional.
Generally speaking, offensive linemen are the worst athletes on the field, based on my DMR scale, which factors in all measurable physical attributes using a grading system for each player from any position, providing a generalizable grade on any player's physical tool set.
Considering a lineman's massive size, it's conceivable that they should be the worst athletes on the field, but the same-sized big men on defense often grade pretty high in DMR.
Let's now look at guys like Jason Peters, who is widely considered at least a top-five offensive lineman in the NFL. This offseason, Peters tore his Achilles and is likely to miss the entire 2012 season. This is a significant blow for the Philadelphia Eagles, but the question remains: How much will Peters be missed?
The Eagles offense should be able to beat or match their offensive output from a year ago. This is interesting, because if we were to eliminate the best player at any other position, we would likely see a tremendous reduction in that team's productivity.
Think about how affected the Steelers are when Troy Polamalu is not playing.
There is a trend developing in the NFL which claims that the running back is losing his value given the nature of passing offenses. Assuming this is true, think about the effect Adrian Peterson has on the Minnesota Vikings and how much he was missed when he was injured.
Similarly, the Lions would clearly be a different team should the Madden Curse manifest itself onto "Megatron." The Jets' entire defense would all but crumble if they were to loose Darrelle Revis. Try taking away Rob Gronkowski from the Patriots and see how they fare.
Yet how much is New England going to miss the retirement of long-time Pro Bowler Matt Light?
The list goes on and on. When elite players from other positions are absent, it yields a clear catastrophic drop in production. I'm left wondering, without any real certainty, just how much the Eagles will miss the best left tackle in the game today. I tend to believe they will be fine without him.
Here are a few interesting notes from my ranking system and the grading system by ProFootballFocus:
- 19 of the 55 worst offensive linemen in the NFL (as graded by PFF) who played at least 25 percent of the snaps were on playoff teams last year.
- According to both systems, only three of the top 10 offensive lines were playoff teams.
- Two of the 10 worst offensive lines in the league happened to play each other for the NFC Championship Game.
It seems clear that the value of an offensive lineman needs to be reassessed.
Teams that invest high draft picks on the offensive line have a better unit than teams that don't: False
Looking at the chart below, the 49ers have one of the worst offensive lines in the league, yet they have invested more in their line in terms of high draft picks than any of the top five offensive lines by far.
|Teams||Avg Draft Rd. of Main Contributors||Combined Avg.|
The most interesting thing about this chart: On average, the five worst offensive lines in the league use higher draft picks on their offensive line (4.11) than the five teams with the best lines (4.69).
The Saints' average round for a contributing offensive lineman was almost the sixth round. They widely were thought of as the best offensive line in the league last year. They achieved this high level of play without a single first-round draft choice on the offensive line.
Drafting an offensive lineman in the first round is a safe pick: False
By tallying up every single offensive lineman drafted in the first round dating back to 1999 (the year the oldest player on the top 50 list entered the league) and dividing that number by the amount of first-rounders in the top 50, it turns out there's about a 25 percent chance of having a first-round offensive lineman end up in the elite 50.
When a team spends their first-round pick on a guy, they hope or expect an elite talent—anything less is a relative disappointment. The reality for offensive linemen, however, is that about only one in four guys drafted in the first round will ever live up to such lofty aspirations.
Those odds of meeting expectations are not exactly the safe bet some might think. In fact, a lineman playing poorly is often under the radar, free from public scrutiny. Without many stats to truly measure their performance, it generally takes an atrocious player to be identified a bust as an offensive lineman—this does not happen often.
People are more likely to think a lineman is a good player simply because they know he was drafted in the first round. Many linemen have managed long careers as starters regardless of performance, simply because they were a highly-touted draft pick coming out of college.
Robert Gallery, for instance, was supposed to be the can't-miss prospect of his draft. But since, has been nothing but a major failure and disappointment. Yet based on his reputation as a top pick in the draft, Gallery continues to start year after year.
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